2011 – James W. Buchan Award for Writing Excellence:

Chris Mills, Virginia.

Do the Ends Justify the Means ?

The validity of the question “do the ends justify the means” is challenged by the nature of human morality. There is no definitive answer, and opinions are dependent upon the relative perspective (e.g. first person) of an event. However, for the sake of providing an argument within the dialectic of personal philosophy, from one of these perspectives, the perspective of the person performing the action, the ends do justify the means.

When discussing the prompt in relation to the topic of human morality and moral development, one could propose that the question of whether ‘the ends justify the means” assumes that human morality remains consistent over a sequence of events. For instance, some people would find it immoral to steal, but many would find it acceptable to take a weapon from a criminal in action. Consequentialism does, in this extreme situation, appear to be a viable mode of personal conduct. Deontological ethics may not always support the prioritization of personal ethics in order to promote survival. In a personal experience, such a prioritization occurred. The tire of a sixteen-wheeler exploded and the truck skidded across the highway. In order to avoid potentially live-threatening contact with the large vehicle, our car sped up and eclipsed the speed limit. An immoral act (breaking the law) suddenly became personally acceptable in the wake of the situation. Consequentialism is necessary in some situations because concrete ethical rules can become contradictory and complex.

The Kantian theory of the categorical Imperative is an important contribution to the discussion on whether the ends justify the means. Immanuel Kant placed respect for human beings, and more importantly individuals, at the pinnacle of the moral pyramid. He felt that personal happiness could be maximized through a strict following of one’s moral code (the ends do not justify the means).

Somewhat contrary to Kant’s ideas were the utilitarian concepts of John Stuart Mill. Mill supported the Greatest-Happiness Principle, which asserts that humans strive for an outcome that promotes the most happiness. The term “most happiness” in many utilitarians’ perspectives refers to the overall well-being of society.

To skirt the discussion of individual versus whole, morality must be once-again observed. Why are morals important? Morals give each person a guide to living. Following a moral code is intended to bring happiness. In this manner, consequentialism trumps deontology, for it removes some of the immediate restrictions (concrete morals) to achie4ve ultimate morality: self-fulfillment, the greatest attainable satisfaction. While many utilitarians feel this ultimate morality is intended to benefit the whole of society, it appears their prioritization of the whole over the self is simply a matter of personal preference and that consequentialism could be fitted to promote any self-benefit. Conflict occurs not because some people advocate the ends and others the means, but rather ultimate moralities clash. Looking exclusively from the perspective of the individual, one’s own ends do justify their means.



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